Sydney’s Scandinavian Opera House

2023 marks 50 years since the opening of Danish architect Jørn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House – one of the most celebrated and troubled architectural projects in history. It gets a passing mention in The Northern Silence, so here’s a little more (and some links to further writing).

Side elevation: Jørn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House from the harbour

Before the theatres in Oslo and Copenhagen, there was the opera house in Sydney – the life’s work of Danish architect Jørn Utzon, even though he spent the vast majority of his life estranged from it.

The story of the unknown Utzon’s winning of the contract to build the Sydney Opera House is the fairy-tale prelude to the nightmare that ensued. That didn’t stop the structure Utzon disowned becoming the world’s most iconic theatre – perhaps the most immediately recognisable man-made structure in the world.

Louis Kahn famously said of the Sydney Opera House that the sun did not know how beautiful its light was until it was reflected off it. Specifically, the sun was reflecting off more than a million clay tiles manufactured in Sweden by the ceramic factory Höganäs.

I’ve never been to Australia (I’ll get there one day) but my partner Sarah was baptised in the building Utzon designed immediately after the opera house: the parish church at Bagsværd in the north Copenhagen suburbs.

As written in The Northern Silence, Bagsværd Church (pronounced Bow-Svair) strikes me as an architectural counterpart to Svend Hvidfelt Nielsen’s Symphony No 3 – a symphony that spirals upwards before evaporating into white space much like the ‘horizontal’ tower of Utzon’s Church.

Apparently, Utzon conceived of the undulating surfaces that line the interior of the Bagsværd tower like rolling clouds while lying on a beach in Hawaii. He was tracking homewards, heartbroken, following the collapse of his relationship with his client in Sydney.

Before it all went sour, Utzon had moved his family to Australia and set up an office there staffed by aspiring Danish and local architects. It was a creative dream, until it wasn’t. Compromise after delay after soaring cost after yet more compromise resulted in the biggest calumny of all: Utzon’s enforced resignation at the hand of the newly elected Minister for Public Works, Davis Hughes, who insisted the design for the building’s interior be put out to fresh tender.

The ‘horizontal tower’ of Utzon’s church at Bagsværd, north of Copenhagen

Hughes, in cahoots with the newly appointed house architects of Sydney City, authorized the pivotal design alteration that would set in train the building’s decades of practical and acoustic problems: the transferal of the opera auditorium to the smaller, second ‘pod’ indented for spoken theatre (Utzon’s plan was for a hybrid main auditorium that could present both concerts and opera).

Theatre moved to a space designed for backstage operations that would have no relationship with the building’s foyers nor its harbourside environment. Tons of specially built machinery and equipment was binned. Utzon’s ideals – a merging of principles borrowed from Yucatán temples and the building practices of the Sung dynasty – were unceremoniously trampled.

Utzon vowed never to step foot on Australian soil again. The project effectively ended his relationship with the famed structural engineer Ove Arup and practically torpedoed the architect’s own career – tainted, as it was, by the disgrace of a grand project left unfinished. Personally, Utzon was devastated. Barely a day went by, according to his son Jan, when wouldn’t make mention of the opera house in Sydney.

Utzon wouldn’t travel to Sydney again. But in 2005, 50 years since the announcement of the Sydney competition, Jan did so on his father’s behalf. Utzon was re-hired by the Opera House to make good on a tiny proportion of the havoc wrought on his own designs (mostly front-of-house, but incorporating improvements to the opera theatre), with his architect-son as partner and envoy.

Foyer of the Joan Sutherland Theatre (the opera theatre) at the Sydney Opera House

Minds had softened. It was acknowledged by Utzon that the building was organic, imperfect and would be subjected to inevitable generational change. Almost more important was the sense of a reconciliation with Sydney, with Australia. It brought Utzon some peace and lubricated his path to work on other projects.

At the Utzon Center in Aalborg, the north Jutland city where Utzon’s father managed the shipyard, you can see the wooden model for his design for a new opera house in Zurich – a fascinating auditorium which, if built, would have been configured like no other (it was scrapped in a cost-cutting measure, a move described by some as yet another manifestation of the ‘Utzon Curse’). You can see drawings pertaining to his one other nationally significant project, the Kuwait National Assembly (eventually vandalised by violence and bad taste), and a boat designed by his father whose hull hints at the form of the Sydney building’s distinctive roof.

In the meantime, Australia’s long and admittedly apologetic attempt to put right what went wrong with Utzon’s building, as much for the benefit of the current audience as anyone else, has completed its latest phase – and right in time for the building’s half-centenary celebrations in 2023. This latest redress, mostly focused on the concert hall, has been deemed a triumph – a rare cause for joy in the history of a grossly troubled building. It was marked with a performance of, appropriately, Gustav Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony given by the Sydney Symphony under Simone Young.

Further Reading

Peter Murray: The Saga of the Sydney Opera House

Michael Asgaard Andersen: Jørn Utzon: Buildings and Drawings

Geraldine Brooks: Unfinished Business (The New Yorker, 2005)

History Lesson: the American Society of Civil Engineers

Arquitectura Viva: Bagsværd Church


Scandinavia, the Weilersteins and the Payares

Joshua Weilerstein has been announced as the new Chief Conductor of the Aalborg Symphony Orchestra in Denmark – the latest chapter in his family’s substantial Scandinavian love affair

Joshua Weilerstein conducts the Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne (Yuri Pires Tavares)

It’s great news that Joshua Weilerstein will assume the Chief Conductorship of the Aalborg Symphony Orchestra from the 2023-24 Season. He is a capable conductor who takes charge of an ambitious orchestra with a stunning concert hall in Musikkens Hus – one that gets a fair bit of text in The Northern Silence by dint of its striking Gehry-like design and the transformative effect it has had on the locality since it opened in 2014.

Bijoux Aalborg is a special city, brimming with life and creativity. It has a bold Alvar Aalto-designed art gallery, an architectural museum built in homage to its most famous son, Jørn Utzon (who designed the Sydney Opera House) and a large student population. For those who care about such things, it also has a heavenly, crystalline little airport.

So, exciting times. But gratifying ones, too, given Weilerstein’s varied and multifaceted links with Scandinavia – which apparently run in the family. The Weilersteins, it seems, have the Nordic region under their skin.

Joshua won the Malko conducting competition in Copenhagen in 2009, which bagged him contracts to conduct orchestras throughout the Nordic region over a period of years (it took him to Aalborg for the first time in 2011). He has since recorded with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra and the Oslo Philharmonic.

For the Weilerstein family, it didn’t end there. The next Malko competition – in 2012 – was won by Rafael Payare, currently in his first season as Music Director of the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal (he recently presided over a fine run of Toscas at the Royal Danish Opera in Copenhagen). Payare is married to Weilerstein’s sister, the cellist Alisa Weilerstein. ‘I sure know a lot about the Malko Competition,’ Alisa once told me.

Back in 2012, Alisa wanted to get to Copenhagen to see her future husband participate in the Malko final, having played a concerto with the Philharmonia Orchestra in London the night before. But she was bumped off her flight and ended up getting a connection via Trondheim, Norway. ‘I had never heard of Trondheim. But I saw these wild untamed landscapes and I thought, “this is a really fascinating place; I have to come back here,”’ she told me in 2018.

Come back she did. When Payare was contracted to conduct the Trondheim Symphony Orchestra as part of his Malko prize package, Alisa travelled with him. Without much to do as her partner rehearsed the orchestra, she was shown around the town by Kathryn Hjesvold of The Trondheim Soloists, Trondheim’s zippy string orchestra (Hjesvold is a British former IMG agent).

A relationship was born that came to fruition in 2018, when Alisa was appointed Artistic Partner at The Trondheim Soloists. She quickly released a recording of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht with the ensemble that was awarded a Gramophone Editor’s Choice, and embarked upon a tour with it that took her back to Copenhagen.

‘I’ve done some of my very best music making here in Norway,’ Alisa told me when we met in Trondheim. ‘The musicians [of The Trondheim Soloists] like to rehearse, to work and to explore new ideas and repertoire. There is an openness to absolutely everything, it’s liberating.’

Musikkens Hus, Aalborg, designed by Coop Himmelb(l)au of Austria

I hope her brother finds a similar attitude at the top of Jutland, the bit of Denmark that gazes across the Kattegat Sea towards the more dramatic landscape of southern Norway.

I’ve always been impressed by the Aalborg Symphony Orchestra’s programming and I love spending time in its concert hall. It has been without a Chief Conductor since 2015 (Michael Schønwandt has been keeping the ensemble on its toes with regular visits as principal guest conductor in the meantime) and has clearly bided its time. The ensemble also celebrates its 80th birthday in 2023, just in time for Weilerstein’s arrival.

More significantly, Weilerstein’s appointment consolidates a heartening trend among Denmark’s regional orchestras – away from appointing perceived ‘prestige’ Chief Conductors, who come with impressive central European CVs but are nearing the end of their careers and are apparently not too interested in examining what a symphony orchestra can be.

Weilerstein has the dynamism to put a different sort of focus on his orchestra in Aalborg – one that matches the flair and connectivity of its new home. I hope the orchestra will flourish under him, and see no reason why it shouldn’t. Either way, I look forward to watching and listening.